THE SUNDAY AGE ~ Melbourne ~ March 7 2010
By ANNE SUMMERS
Read also: "Arrogant, misnformed Sydney playwright Louis Nowra's character assassination of Germaine Greer serves only to remind of her ageless value for women"
IN MID-1970 I went to a seminar on The Female Eunuch where I met a woman who had covered her copy of the book with brown paper and had to hide it among her shoes so that her husband would not see it. I have often wondered since if that woman became one of the legions who gained the courage from Greer's book to leave a marriage that had been contracted on the basis of inequality.
Whether you admire Greer or find her infuriating or, like many people including myself, you have both reactions, often simultaneously, there is no getting around the fact that she was and remains a brave and passionate advocate for liberty, especially for women.
She has always been a flamboyant figure, not afraid of upsetting or shocking people, willing to be assertive and argumentative and to stride in polemically where others are too timid to tread. At the same time, she has chalked up impressive scholarly achievements as both a teacher and a writer of books on literary subjects including female artists and Shakespeare's wife.
But her greatest achievement is, of course, The Female Eunuch, published 40 years ago, still in print, translated into 12 languages and a book whose influence is impossible to exaggerate.
Sometimes a book changes everything, and this was such a book.
It was part of a wave of books that created and defined the emerging women's liberation movement, a gathering storm of female protest that eventually morphed into the more sedate equality-seeking feminism that still battles on today. There was Kate Millett's Sexual Politics, The Dialectic of Sex by Shulamith Firestone and the reader Sisterhood Is Powerful edited by Robin Morgan. All were incendiary, life-changing books that were eagerly devoured by a generation of women on the cusp of self-realisation. But none had the impact of The Female Eunuch.
There were two reasons for this. While the other books were mostly about attacking the patriarchy and, by extension, men, Greer had ''feminine parasites'' in her sights: ''What they can tolerate is intolerable for a woman with any pride.''
Greer wanted women to change as much as she wanted to tear down the patriarchy; she was not about giving women excuses for failing to be free.
Secondly, there was Greer herself. She epitomised the coming together of the sexual revolution of the '60s with the women's movement of the '70s. Whereas the other early feminist writers tended to be dour and earnest, using words as their their weapons, Greer was sexy and provocative, willing to pose naked, her body part of her armoury.
Whereas Kate Millett attacked Norman Mailer, describing him as ''a prisoner of the virility cult'', Germaine Greer flirted with him during the infamous and memorable ''Town Bloody Hall'' debate in New York in April 1971 when Mailer chaired a discussion of his provocative essay The Prisoner of Sex before a rowdy female audience. (The event was filmed by D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus and is available on DVD.)
Greer was often, and still is, attacked by other feminists for not toeing the party line. Back then, it was for what she wore (revealing too much flesh for the puritans of the movement) and for being ''male-identified'', which used to be a crime in the early days of a movement that was still trying to define itself and its parameters. But Greer always was, and remains, an iconoclast and an individualist rather than a foot soldier of feminism.
She is, in fact, a true Australian larrikin, which is a huge part of her charm.
Even so, I heard her speak in Sydney last year, at the launch of her little book On Rage, where she spoke movingly of the ways in which women's stories had sustained her and nourished her and made it possible to write every one of her books. In saying this, she seemed to be putting herself into the movement, and there is no doubt from the huge crowds (of mostly women) who pay to see her whenever she makes a public appearance in Australia that she is very welcome. We are proud of her, and glad she is one of us.
Although not everyone thinks so. Just this week she has been the subject of a cruel and very personal attack by the Sydney writer Louis Nowra, who wrote that, these days, Greer ''looks like a befuddled and exhausted old woman'' who ''has become a grotesque character called Germaine Greer''.
Apparently Louis is upset because Greer failed, all those years ago, to make his mother a feminist. Other women read the book and left their husbands, he writes; his mother stayed with her violent husband and ''festered into inexplicable fury''. She had to be rescued by her son whose court-room testimony put his stepfather in prison. Nowra has clearly never forgiven Greer but just as unkind as his words is the cover photograph of the magazine which brutally captures all the lines of life on her face.
Greer is 71 this year. She has chosen to age naturally, and not resort to plastic surgery or the injections of poison that young women are deluded into imagining will improve their appearance. She ought to be applauded.
Instead we have an editor, smirking from the safety of his extreme youth, seeking to ridicule her.
It's a cheap shot.
Greer herself said of The Female Eunuch in 1970, in the summary introduction: ''If it is not ridiculed or reviled, it will have failed of its intention. If the most successful feminine parasites do not find it offensive, then it is innocuous.''
She might not have expected that, 40 years on, she would still be a target but you don't write a book that changes the world without making enemies.
Anne Summers' latest book is The Lost Mother (Melbourne University Press), annesummers.com.au.